On Forbearance, Tolerance, and Concord—the Constantinian Model

I intend soon enough to do a full review of Peter Leithart’s interesting book Defending Constantine but for now,  I want to focus on one aspect of his approach to religious matters that deserves closer attention.  When Constantine had gained power, beyond his military command,  he and Licinius  issued a proclamation now called the Edict of Milan.  This was an important edict of what we would call religious tolerance, and it set in motion a situation in which there would be no more persecution of Christians, for a start, but in fact it said a good deal more.  It suggested that the Biblical God was the supreme God who should be worshipped, and that other views would be tolerated, but not preferred by the Empire’s rulers, hence religious tolerance.

Following the lead of Elizabeth Digeser,  Peter Leithart sets up a threefold paradigm meant to locate Constantine and explain his religious policies (pp. 139-40).  The paradigm distinguishes between forbearance, tolerance, and concord, with Leithart suggesting that ultimately and in the end Constantine’s practice tended towards the latter of these three.   Forbearance is a mere pragmatic policy not guided by moral principle, and when the going got rough politically, it could give way to a policy of persecution.

Toleration by contrast involves a moral principle such as the notion that a person’s religious views cannot or should not be coerced in some particular direction by civic authorities.  Note however that ‘toleration’ on this model does not mean equality and does not mean acceptance.  I stress this because too often the term ‘toleration’  in modern American discourse does not mean what the dictionary say toleration means, namely an unwillingness to take action against something you disapprove of and disagree with because you think suppression of it is a violation of some religious right or privilege.   Toleration means toleration, putting up with,  not consent or approval.  In modern American discourse the term has come to mean something else entirely and something more than ‘live and let live’.     Tolerance whether in political or ethical or theological debates on hot topics is often a buzz word for ‘acceptance of something as legitimate as a viable moral option’.   This is particularly true in the homosexuality debate, but also in other current debates as well.

The third, and most important category when it comes to Constantine is ‘concord’.   Concord is a policy in which by treating some one or some group with forbearance and tolerance you believe you are creating an ethos or certain conditions under which the one’s tolerated may see the light and freely change their behavior,  in this case to what the State expects.    Leithart stresses that this third approach is in fact what was Constantine’s policy.

This explains why on the one hand he clearly favored Christianity, constructed many churches, and even banned pagan sacrifice in some limited situations and senses (which btw is banned today as well in most States in tolerant politically correct America as well)   but on the other hand,  Constantine did not tear down all pagan shrines, forbid various forms of pagan worship, nor did he withdraw all funding from the same.    Constantine, as Leithart shows time and again, was not the religious dictator imposing Christianity on one and all that he is so often portrayed to be.   He was a committed Christian however, in a 4th century sense of the term.   More on this in due course.

My question that comes out of this discussion is—  How should Americans, and perhaps especially our President  approach the issue of religious tolerance?  It seems clear enough to me that on the one hand, considering the drift away from our Judaeo-Christian roots of government in some respects, that we could not and should not expect to have a President like Constantine,  especially in view of the Bill of Rights including freedom of religion as a moral principle of the state.   On the other hand, there is no reason why we could not rightly expect to have a President who is a committed Christian, favors that religion, is happy to give tax breaks to churches and other charitable organizations,   while at the same time,  like Constantine,  not de-funding other legitimate well established religious groups.   Tolerance in this model, again, does not mean consent or agreement, it means tolerance.   This is not the same thing as someone saying ‘all world religions are equal paths to God and equally legitimate’.

Think on these things.

  • http://www.piousfabrications.com David Withun

    This is a very interesting post; thank you for this. There certainly is much food for thought here. I only recent read Elizabeth Digeser’s thesis concerning the policy of “religious concord” by St. Constantine and I have yet to read Peter Leithart’s book though it’s been sitting on my shelf waiting for me since Christmas.

    I think that there are many other issues that surround the issue of religious toleration and what that means in America. For instance, while this nation’s founding fathers were not all themselves committed Christians, they certainly could not have imagined a country like ours with such (and growing) religious diversity. If they could not (and they clearly expressed that they could not — few Americans could until fairly recent times) picture an America in which blacks and whites lived side-by-side peacefully and even (!) inter-married, they definitely could not have pictured an America in which Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and individuals with dozens of other religious affiliations do so. They were firmly entrenched in the traditions of Western Civilization with its Catholic-Protestant roots (atheism and its forerunner deism are both the product of the Western religious tradition, whether their modern adherents want to accept that or not), the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Reformation.

    The question that we encounter now is what do we do as we experience an influx of people coming from cultures who do not share such foundation concepts of Western Civilization as the separation of church and state, individualism, and so on. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian (albeit a convert from Western Christianity), I also count myself as a member of that growing population for whom such ideas are foreign ones, difficult to reconcile with our religious, philosophical, and cultural worldviews.

    I certainly don’t have the answers; only the future will tell how all of this will play out as the demographics of the United States continue to change, getting further and further from the world that the founding fathers took for granted.

  • Greg Van Dussen

    Thanks, Ben. Tolerance in the contemporary American sense, as you say, implies acceptance and equality in the sense of “all religions are just different paths to the same goal” or “to the same God”. I suspect part of the reason for this shift is intellectual laziness and another is avoidance of conflict.

    It is impossible to sustain the “just different paths” argument when we take the time to ask what the various world religions actually believe. For example, Buddhism’s nirvana and Christianity’s eternal life are opposites, not different ways of approaching the same reality.
    Saying they are similar or parallel may paper over potential conflict or avoid the unpleasantness of study, but it won’t make it so.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Rev. Bryant J. Williams III

    Dear Ben,

    I agree with your initial comments regarding Constantine. It was his son, Constantius I, and subsequent emperors who made Christianity the religion of the Empire over against paganism and, especially, Judaism. This anti-Semitic trend continues today with Replacement Theology, etc.

    Constantine wanted a united Empire. It had been achieved politically and religiously. So, when the Arian Controversy broke out it really caused him problems. That is one of the reasons he wanted the Nicean Council. Let’s also do not forget that Constantine, contrary to some circles’ thoughts, was really well-versed on the issue.

    It would be good for you to probably write something on this issue when you review Leithart’s book.

  • MF

    There was an interview on the Mars Hill Audio Journal with Daniel Dreisbach where he claimed that the point of the First Amendment was to prevent *federal* establishment of religion. The states were still allowed to do that, and indeed several had state churches at the time of ratification. Interesting stuff.

    The MHAJournal also had an interview with Leithart about this book. It was good, but I wish it had been longer!

  • http://www.fandango.com/edlauter/filmography/p40825 hotshot bald cop

    My ideas exactly!

  • Matthew Weatherford

    Sounds like a good book, check out my blog at http://www.theoanthropos.blogspot.com


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